Open Letter to College Admissions Departments

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” — Ken Robinson

I just returned from a week of touring colleges with my youngest daughter. Its been a few years since the last go round and while it seems the world is changing faster than ever, not much has changed about the tours and the information sessions since I first did this six years ago. The students who lead the tours are poised and charismatic, they have impressive memories and long lists of achievements to their credit. The admissions counselors give pretty much the same spiel with different sets of statistics as are relevant to the institution. They want us, the parents and prospective students sitting in front of them, to know that their student body is full of confident creative leaders who will change the world. They tell us that they choose students who by the age of 17, have demonstrated that they are this type of person. From one college admissions counselor I heard, “We’re looking for students who, when you read their application, you think, “When did he/she have time to sleep?”

My oldest daughter tried that routine. She fell asleep on a Friday afternoon while driving home from a swim meet because she was trying to live on about five hours of sleep a night. She was lucky and only hit a parked car a few blocks from home, but it was a good lesson that sleep has to trump “activities” or “bad things” happen.

When we, the adults, send the message to the next generation that the way they will succeed in life is to fill their lives with so much activity that they don’t have time to sleep, we send a very dangerous message. I’m not talking simply about falling asleep while driving, although that’s a pretty quick way to eliminate a creative mind. What I’m talking about is that if we take the brightest of our children, the ones who are already inclined to push their minds beyond the limits of what they already know, and we teach them to numb their creativity with incessant doing, their minds will not be open to the wildly creative ideas which we desperately need to solve the problems of a world at a tipping point in many arenas.

Wildly creative ideas do not happen when our brains are working overtime on multiple projects which are all directed at some goal we are working toward. Wildly creative ideas “happen”. They arrive unbidden when our minds are meandering in the garden inspecting the peony buds, or wondering when the leaves on the Japanese maple, which are indeed apricot colored as they begin to unfurl, change to the remembered bronze of their maturity.

Sometimes they descend upon us from the shower nozzle, or in a cascade of cherry blossoms blown from a nearby tree. Flashes of brilliance happen when we’re standing still. Perhaps we’re staring at the sky after watching a pair of young eagles seemingly tumble from a nearby tree, looking for sure as though they’re about to crash into the surface of the lake, cavorting like a couple of preteen boys wrestling over some random object, completely unaware of their environment. Transfixed, we marvel as they narrowly avoid disaster and somehow disentangle themselves just in time, rising above the level of the highest trees before we can catch our breath.

This is when the ideas “happen”, not when a student is blinded by all-nighters and dosed up on caffeine and/or Aderall which may or may not have been prescribed for them. This so that they can eek a little more focus out of their overly focused minds… So that they can get a little bit higher score on a standardized test, because they’ve been told that that’s what its going to take to get into the colleges they most want to attend.

While my oldest daughter was swimming in college, a former teammate of hers posted a world record at the world championships in a fancy racing suit. Shortly afterward, the powers that be of the swimming world banned that type of suit. Four years later her record still stands, as do a host of others from that time period. The style of suit literally allowed the athletes to swim faster than they could have without them.

I’ve heard reports from my college kids about the widespread use of Aderall before tests. I now hear the same from my high school junior. In general the students they’re referring to do not have Aderall prescriptions. They simply want the improved focus reportedly offered by the drug in order to rack up higher scores where they think they need them. The drugs are simply an external aid allowing them to achieve at a higher level than they could have without, like a now banned high tech swim suit, or the performance enhancing drugs that have spelled the downfall of high profile athletes.

If, dear college admissions staff, you take those SAT test scores and post them all over the internet, or tout them to prospective applicants, so that anyone who looks at your website sees that your average SAT Math scores range up to 760, there’s no way of arguing that this doesn’t promote an environment excessively focused on achievement as opposed to creativity.

We parents and prospective students need to hear the admissions counselors leading those information sessions say:

“We’re looking for well-rounded students who know how to think creatively and demonstrate that they have the maturity and resilience to handle setbacks; who get a lousy grade every once in a while and bounce back from it.”

“We’re looking for students who excel in the classes where they have a high aptitude and manage well in the classes where they may not be so gifted.”

“We’re looking for students who’ve had time in their lives for friends and family, not students who’ve received letters in several varsity sports, had part time jobs and volunteer jobs, been invited to join multiple different honors societies, are student body president and valedictorian.”

What message would it send if you said:

“We want to read essays about babysitting and mowing the lawn and family dinners. We want to read about the favorite book you’ve read 12 times or growing a vegetable garden or fighting with your brothers. We want to read about how much you hated folding the laundry and the creative ways you got out of it. We want to know what you haven’t done yet that gets you out of bed in the morning. We want to know what you’ve always dreamed of, or are deathly afraid of, or afraid to hope for, because then we know who you really are.”

Or if you said:

“If you have too many activities, we will throw your application in the trash because that means you didn’t take the time to lay in the grass and dream, to imagine a different kind of world and how you might play a part in creating that dream.”

Because we need a different kind of world right now and we need it fast…

The students who will graduate high school in 2015 can have a different kind of experience if you decide to do it differently.

The institutions of higher learning hold enormous power. By changing your expectations, you can ask our children to show you who they are, not what they have done.

You must start asking your applicants to share with you their dreams rather than list their achievements. Ask them to finish the question, “what if…?” and then answer it with whatever they can dream up. Challenge them to ask a question you haven’t been asked and don’t know the answer to…

Asking students to demonstrate their literacy is expected before they attend college, what about asking them to share their creative ideas?

Thank you for listening.

P.S. My children (young adults) have been involved with some wildly creative shenanigans in college. I’m not making the point that colleges are inhabited by robotic automatons, simply that the message I hear from admissions staff is by and large one that promotes over achievement and over doing, that the application process itself further emphasizes those values, and that in general, the process that faces a 17 year old asks them to present a resume that provides little room for creative exploration, and that its past time for this to change.

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Language and Identity

The title of this post sounds like some kind of philosophical treatise, and indeed, having typed “language and identity” into a google search field just to see if anything came up, I discovered an extensive list of scholarly papers and books on the topic.

I scanned the list and clicked on one link – a book of sociolinguistic theory published by Cambridge University Press. That’s as far as I went in my search. I could either write this post or dive into sociolinguistic theory…

In my writing this morning, I suddenly became fascinated by the hold the term “stay at home mom” has had on me. I thought, what if I just stopped thinking of myself in those words? In truth, I only have one child left at home and she’s 17. I don’t spend a lot of time at home being a mom anymore. Its almost not true. Its actually kind of a cop-out. I spend as much or more time writing, working with photographs, making art, and engaging in all sorts of outdoor physical pursuits as I do in my responsibilities at home.

I could call myself any one of these things. I often do call myself a photographer. Sometimes people pay me to make photographs. When answering the question, “What do you do?” with the words “I’m a photographer”, the next question is usually, “Do you make a living doing that?”, and then I have to say “no”, and mumble my bit about wearing many hats and not really making a living doing any of them. That sucks… but I’ve already written a lot about the conflict between being and doing and how we have a long ways to go culturally before we value “being” over “doing”.

I want to return to this other idea that I’m tracking about language though because it seems relevant to the larger question. What if I simply refuse to allow the word “photographer”, or “writer” or “stay at home mom” to define me in any way. Sure, there is concrete evidence to the fact that I am a mother. There are three human beings on this planet who confirm that fact.

I never decided to be a “stay at home mom”, it just happened, so how did I come to let those words make such a prison for me. How does the word “doctor” or “banker” become a prison for the free human being trapped inside that identity?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and blame it on my beloved words, and on the possibility that we humans have come to let words define us and our experience in life rather than demanding that words actually serve our purposes.

There’s a campaign I’ve seen on social media lately to ban the word “bossy”, which, when I first saw it, I thought, “Yeah really!” because I was one of those little girls called “bossy”. But then I thought more about it in the context of this topic and I thought, no… the real problem simply lies in the power we give those damn words. (Its not lost on me that I’m sitting here writing this using words. Actually, I’m pounding words into submission with every [hard] tap of my fingers on the keyboard!)

The bits of backlash I’ve read to the “ban bossy” campaign definitely make this argument, that as a feminist agenda it generally fails because actually, a lot of empowered women (feminists?) don’t seem to mind being called bossy. In thinking about it, though it was a word used to shut me up when I was young, it doesn’t have that effect anymore and I take a secret pride when my daughters are called “bossy”. I think “good for you!”.

In my last post, I said that I had some theories about why its so hard for women of my demographic to value themselves and share their gifts with the world. I’ll add to my original thoughts that there are sociolinguistic challenges as well. I smile as I write those words because I didn’t actually know sociolinguistics was a field until today.

Though I write from the perspective of a 52 year old woman who has spent most of the last 24 years out of the workforce raising children, I know that each person, no matter how they identify themselves, faces challenges when they decide they want to break down the invisible structures that contain them within an identity they no longer want to live within. Interestingly enough, I can’t say what it feels like to stop identifying with the term “housewife” for example, because its one I refused to adopt, or “soccer mom”, because I didn’t take that one on either. Likewise, but for different reasons, I’ll never know what it feels like to try to shed the identity label “attorney” or “banker”, if one longs to be a poet.

There’s no getting around the fact that we humans seem to like to label things. It would be a problem if we stopped labeling doors, “restroom” in restaurants and had people wandering around opening doors to closets offices and storage rooms when they simply needed to use a toilet. But we don’t have a problem with a closet being remodeled to become a bathroom, so why do we have such a hard time when we want to change our own label, or wear a different one every other week?

“What do you do?”

This weekend, I’m clearly a writer. This is my second post on this blog in two days after almost three years.

I’ll also be a cook, a dog walker and a laundress. I have a half finished art project that I’ve walked by too many times to count. Now that winter is trying to turn into spring, my garden is begging for attention. I might get called in to wear my editor’s hat on Sunday night, or provide college counseling. I have photos that need editing for my farm blog and an empty refrigerator.

What do you do?

Lyon

As a 17 year old, I spent part of a school year homesick and lonely in Lyon, largely missing the city’s charms. Living with a French family who spoke no english and attending a local “lycée”, I was so far out of my comfort zone that I truly couldn’t appreciate it. I arrived just after Christmas to snow on the ground, which, in Seattle, is a rather rare treat. In Lyon however, the snow sat on the pavement of the sidewalks and streets getting filthy and smelly (think lots of dogs, few parks and lots of poop mixed with melting snow on the sidewalks). It was cold and gross and I had no one to talk to as I walked to and from school trying not to slip in the brown slush. With only two years of high school french under my belt, I sat through eight hours of philosophy a week, falling asleep in class nearly every day from the sheer exhaustion of trying to understand what was being said.

Returning to Lyon as an adult, I’m always surprised at how much it offers. For the last 20 years one of my Irish cousins and her husband have lived just outside the city, giving me reason to come back on several occasions. Usually, its been a stopover to meet her and her family to head off on some crazy adventure with our combined lot of six children. But this time, with the kids all well on their way to grown, I arrived to spend some time with her, her husband and sister. It had been over 10 years since I’d seen any of them, so we had a lot to catch up on. No grand adventures were planned, just being together.

Mornings usually found us long at the kitchen table munching croissants and drinking coffee regardless of the schemes concocted the night before. Whatever it was seemed to take on less urgency on the heels of yet another 2am bedtime. Some time after noon, we’d all of a sudden realize that the day was escaping and come up with an improvised plan based on how many hours remained until dinner. On one outing into town we checked out an area called “the docks” – previously warehouses along the river – which is being completely redone to house clubs, cutting edge furniture and interior design stores that cater to a hip, young, multi-cultural, international set.

An orange cube building initially caught my attention, but at further inspection, the buildings on either side matched the orange cube with their own innovative but less outrageously colorful elements.

We wandered through the medieval warren, “Vieux Lyon”, with its narrow alleys, covered walkways, and secret passages built to protect bolts of silk, (an industry for which Lyon was known up until some time in the 19th century). Theoretically, we were trying to decide where to eat dinner but got sidetracked by ice cream in a central plaza near the river, which gave us the opportunity to spend more time teasing each other, laughing and telling stories. But this is Lyon, and meals are serious business here, so after wandering and window shopping a little more, we retrieved warmer clothing to ward off the evening chill and launched ourselves into the evening’s next culinary adventure.

Some time since 1979, Lyon became home to a collective of artists who paint giant murals on the walls of the very ordinary urban residential buildings that line the banks of the Rhone and Saône rivers. Now, every other block sports a building or two painted with elaborate trompe l’oeil designs and enormous pictures of life in Lyon. I’d seen a few small, decrepit versions of these in the old part of town, but crossing the river, I looked up, stunned to see the playful, colorful paintings ornamenting the same buildings I had trudged by daily lamenting to myself the dreariness of this town where I’d landed.

After four days of hanging out with cousins, exploring the country lanes near their home as well as the contrasting newer and older parts of Lyon, I headed off on an early morning train to Italy, the second leg of my pilgrimage to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in too long.

Saying goodbye, we vowed to do this again sooner. It was a new way of being together for all of us. No major plans, no destinations, no need to entertain young children, just hanging out, talking, eating and being. As I’ve said, I’m still learning how to do this thing, and I can’t say that there weren’t moments when I looked at the clock and thought, “Are we going to do anything today?” without an accompanying feeling of anxiety that indeed, we might not! In retrospect, I look back and think how silly that thought was. The idea behind it is that “if I’m all the way over here in France, shouldn’t I be doing something?” And being all the way over here in Seattle, I look at that and think, “how ridiculous.” Those memories of watching the royal wedding at 1am after finishing dinner somewhere close to midnight, sitting at breakfast until after noon and grilling steaks in the back yard are the ones that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the images from the cool trompe l’oeil paintings.

“Sinking into it”

Mt. Rainier

Maybe I should only post photos here taken with my Blackberry! I grabbed this one at noon today while hiking “the King” at the top of Crystal Mountain. I couldn’t resist. Often, while hiking with skis weighing down my right shoulder, I’m inclined to get to the destination as quickly as possible. Today, I had to stop, drop the skis, fish the Blackberry out of my pocket and capture the view. It was so bright, I couldn’t see what I was shooting, but I could see blue at the top of the screen and a swatch of something white-ish across the middle of the frame, so I figured Rainier was “in”. Continue reading

Construction Projects

A Fairy House?

I had my camera with me this afternoon walking around Greenlake but it wasn’t the primary reason I was there. I was meeting a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long. As it turned out, the weather cooperated with our plan, and we circled the lake twice without making a dent in the backlog of topics we still haven’t talked about. Continue reading

Taking a Deep Breath

Chillin'

Its always a challenge to choose a photograph for my blog on days when I’ve been shooting for Soulumination. Nothing seems quite as compelling as the photographs I’m not using. Soulumination, if you aren’t familiar with the organization, takes photographs of children and parents with life-threatening illnesses. Free of charge, they put together a photographic record of love for the families of those who are ill.

Today the image posted here is one of those that was shot after “the shoot”. I photographed this guy because I loved the idea of sitting there in the late afternoon sun reading a book. Continue reading

Why do People Think I’m Idealistic?

My Imagination

“Our greatest failure is not one of politics but of imagination. We need to imagine a world at peace and work backwards from there.” ~ Marianne Williamson in The Age of Miracles

You know how it is when someone says something that you “get” intellectually; you’ve heard it before, and its not a new concept, but suddenly, you hear it and get it viscerally. It has meaning at a cellular level. I was driving home from Robby’s soccer game this afternoon, having been gone with Charlotte most of the day, and I was stuck in traffic.

Listening, again, to the audio version of Marianne Williamson’s book, which I have found uplifting and inspiring (not bad when one is stuck in a traffic jam), I heard the above sentence and the light went on. Not in my head, but deep inside I felt and saw what she was talking about. Continue reading